Carragher Skrtel Kyrgiakos Insua
Gerrard Kuyt Riera
K Davies (og) 70’
Strong opening play from Liverpool, where we saw a slight alteration to the tactics, soon frighteningly led to few openings and the best chance for the opposition, which has become an awful case of déjà vu this season. When Lee, with Insua caught upfield, ran past three retreating defenders and Reina, he looked like putting Bolton ahead in the 24th. But Kyrgiakos smartly retreated to the goal line, where he was fortunately placed to clear Lee’s shot.
And by the 30th minute, Liverpool had reestablished control in an increasingly open game. Like against Spurs, it was Aquilani to Kuyt that led to the opener. A lofted cross-field ball found Insua in space, cleverly crossing to the back post. Aquilani won a strong header over Knight to put the chance on a plate for Kuyt, stabbing in despite Cahill on the line. You could feel the relief around Anfield through the television.
Despite a chance immediately after the goal, Ngog getting into the box only to shoot straight at Jaaskelainen, Bolton upped the pressure for the rest of the half as Davies started to win a few headers. Lee earned a yellow for diving in the 44th, looking for a penalty after splitting two defenders to get into the area, before Taylor lost Carragher at the back post, only to shoot into the side netting when the cross took him too wide.
That Bolton started the second half similarly was obviously depressing. Thankfully, it lasted about five minutes, after which they basically capitulated to a better Liverpool team. Two breaks in quick succession in the 51st and 53rd should have led the much-needed second goal. First, Mascherano stormed down the left and seemingly released Gerrard with an inch-perfect cross, only to see Mark Davies get back in time. Two minutes later, Mascherano found Riera up the same flank, with Jaaskelainen saving Gerrard’s shot from the centered ball, while Ngog could only stab the rebound off the frame of the goal when it looked easier to score.
Better play, in which Jaaskelainen saved another good Gerrard effort, finally saw a fortuitous second. Bolton were unable to clear a corner well-won by Carragher, and Insua’s low shot took a massive deflection off Kevin Davies. The Anfield announcer credited the diminutive left back with his second for the club, but I’m fairly certain it’ll go down as an own goal.
That strike took all the pressure off Liverpool, and they were able to comfortably see out the final 20 minutes in which the away side never threatened. That Bolton took off Muamba for a second striker, removing Gerrard’s shadow, allowed the captain to drive forward and influence play far more in the last 10 minutes, and it was slightly surprising to see the decent pressure not lead to a third. But we can’t be greedy. Babel’s entrance, for Ngog in the 84th, should signal Babel’s return to the fold and that there’ll be no more business in this transfer window. Otherwise, I’m sure it would have been Pacheco.
Today’s was only the second league game in which Lucas didn’t start, along with the 2-1 win over Wigan six weeks ago. Only Reina and Kuyt have started more. And I’m sure it’s coincidence the respite comes after arguably his worst performance of the season on Tuesday.
It led to some different tactics. Including both Aquilani and Ngog took some of the pressure off Gerrard, who was man-marked by Muamba just as in the last meeting. The captain ostensibly started on the right, looking to create gaps by dragging Muamba out wide, but it only lasted about 10 minutes, although the line of three continued to switch at times. The additional attacking impetus from Aquilani did create some space for Stevie, and the Italian did excellently to assist on the opener, but was also clearly trying too hard at times. Of course, better to be trying too hard than not at all.
And while it’ll give Lucas haters some more ammunition, it’s the plan I expected when Aquilani signed, which finally shows Benitez is comfortable with the Italian’s fitness – at the same time key players like Gerrard and Riera are looking fitter. We might see the same midfield against Everton, as it’s at Anfield, but I’m sure we’ll get Lucas and Mascherano at the Emirates in 11 days. Plus, Lucas looked tidy in his 25-minute cameo, clearly to fortify the midfield with the lead, and the second goal wasn’t long after his entrance.
You can’t underestimate the captain’s vast improvement; Gerrard was Liverpool’s best player along with Mascherano and Kyrgiakos. Never disheartened despite Muamba perpetually in his path, he was active in trying to find openings wherever possible and clearly looked to exploit the space in the final minutes. A goal would have been deserved too, with Jaaskelainen making two good saves. His progress was the biggest catalyst for Liverpool’s increased attacking cohesion.
But, again, special mention should also be made for Masch and Kyrgiakos. Mascherano was unsurprisingly excellent patrolling the midfield. Kyrgiakos battled the difficult Davies step for step. And the defense deserves its third successive clean sheet – both Carragher and Insua were tested but didn’t break, and both (even Carra and especially Insua) asked questions in the opposition half.
This was a performance more in the vein of Spurs than Wolves. It was what we wanted to see, and should definitely boost morale, but I’ll wait to be even more optimistic after so many false dawns. The upcoming stretch of games is brutal – v Everton, at Arsenal, v Unirea, at City, and at Unirea. We’ll know much more about what kind of corner may or may not have been turned during it.